Ricky Skaggs has been a master of the mandolin for nearly 50 years, rising to fame in bluegrass circles in his early 20s, living up to the promise he showed as a mere 7-year-old on the Flatt & Scruggs television show. He’s collaborated with everyone from Dolly Parton to Jack White and has earned 15 Grammy awards and a trunkful of bluegrass and country honors.
Skaggs could walk away from the grind of the music business and spend the rest of his time shining his trophies, but he’s still driven to perform. He’ll bring his band Kentucky Thunder to the FM Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Friday, June 9.
“I love playin’. I really do, I love it as much, maybe even more now, than I did 40 years ago,” Skaggs says during a recent call from the road. “Of course, I used to be the youngest guy in the band when I first started my country band back in 1980s and I came to Nashville. I had been with Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and a bunch of bluegrass bands before that. … Now I’m not the youngest, I’m the oldest guy in the band with these great musicians, they’re just stellar, they’re such amazing musicians and of course great people to travel with. High-quality players. It pushes me to stay up on my game, and I feel like I fail miserably sometimes just with the speed and accuracy that they play with. But I’m 68 and still playin’, and like I said, I love it so much.”
Joining Skaggs in the group are Russ Carson (banjo), Jake Workman (lead guitar), Dennis Parker (baritone vocals, guitar), Gavin Kelso (bass), Mike Rogers (tenor vocals, rhythm guitar) and Billy Contreras (fiddle).
“I kind of feel like Duke Ellington having these great people come through my band,” he says. “It doesn’t make feel old, it makes me feel proud.”
He described the current show as a retrospective not just on his career, but bluegrass as a whole.
“We’re gonna do some songs by the Mount Rushmore of bluegrass people. We look at bluegrass as having Bill Monroe as the father of the music and the Stanley Brothers being the first group to follow Bill Monroe’s sound with their own sound, and then of course Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and they were in the band with Bill Monroe when this sound started.”
Skaggs became the youngest member to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1981 and worked his way through country music before refocusing on bluegrass.
Collaborations have been a hallmark of his career, including the well-received 2007 album “Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby” and concerts with the pianist and vocalist. He’s also worked with The Whites, a long-standing country group featuring his wife, Sharon White, and made a supergroup alongside The Whites and guitarist Ry Cooder. Surprisingly, he’s also worked with Barry Gibb, known for disco superstardom with The Bee Gees.
He had crossed paths with Parton a few times before he had asked her, and she obliged, to sing on two tracks on his 1983 album “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown.” He went on to produce her 1989 album, “White Limozeen,” her return to country after a pop foray.
“I was out doing her television show in LA with my country band and we were packing up after the show and just loading out and saying our goodbyes, so I hugged her and thanks her for having us on,” Skaggs recalls. “And I looked at her and said, ‘When are you coming to Nashville and doing another record?’ And she cocked her leg out and stomped her foot and said, ‘I’ll come and do one if you produce it.’ So that’s how that call came about. I enjoyed it so much. It was just great working with her every day. She was there every day for tracks, she wasn’t just a star that was staying away. She sang live with the band, and I’d be asking, ‘More Dolly in my headphones, please.'”
Skaggs said his studio in Hendersonville, Tenn., where he lives, is “going through a massive renovation” but after that he hopes to release some new music.
“We’ve got about three or four years of live shows that we need to go through with different musicians in the band, different configurations, different songs, so we got a lot of live stuff that I’d like to release,” Skaggs says. He said there’s “at least one live album” from the Cooder White Skaggs tour and has talked with Gordon Kennedy about doing a follow-up to their 2010 gospel album, “Mosaic.”